Sylvia Colley is the author of Lights on Dark Water. Her latest novel, Ask Me to Dance, was published by Muswell Press on 14 May 2018.
Sylvia has kindly allowed me to share an extract of Ask Me to Dance with you.
I missed the turning to the monastery, going up and down the winding lane several times. I had expected to see a large name announcing the place, but in fact there was simply a small metal sign swinging from a post, almost hidden by the branches of an overhanging tree. In faded white paint it read Burnham Abbey, with an arrow underneath, pointing towards a narrow driveway. I turned the car into the unmade track, dark in the shadows of heavy-leafed maple trees.
I came across the abbey suddenly; it stood in sunshine, long and white and deserted. The car was throbbing intrusively in the stillness, seemed so loud; I had the urge to just stop and walk, but I shouted at myself. I do shout out loud sometimes. Then I shouted, ‘Get a bloody grip, you stupid cow. There’s nothing to be anxious about.’ And so, I drove up to the flagged area outside the front door.
It was very quiet once I had turned off the engine. Not a sound. No one about. I wasn’t sure whether to take my stuff out of the car or to knock first, just to make sure they really were expecting me.
Then I heard a cuckoo echoing from a distance; a hollow reed, bell- like and persistent and that lovely sound carried with it memories of sun blowing through blue cotton curtains in that other life when the cuckoo call symbolised long, hot summer days. We had followed the call once, me and the children, and saw the cuckoo high in the elm tree the other side of the river.
I opened the boot and pulled out my holdall and a carrier bag filled with my sketch pads, paints and brushes, because I had imagined gardens like French chateau gardens and thought I would be able to find beautiful and secluded spots where I could paint, but I left the easel behind because I thought it might all seem a bit much. I shoved my battered straw hat onto the back of my head.
You could tell the place was badly run down, for the huge front door, which must have been magnificent once, was covered in feathered, flaking green paint and the doorknob was black with tarnish. I knew they were closing down soon, relocating to join another monastery in Wiltshire somewhere, yet were still taking visitors. Or so I thought. It would be like a hotel with a few prayers now and then. People would be charming and friendly and I would possibly make new friends. That’s what I thought.
My hands full, I managed to push the bell with my chin, but nobody answered. I felt so alone. Helpless. Unsure what to do. In the end, I put down my stuff and opened the door. Obviously, like churches, the doors remained unlocked during the day. I pushed my way in and piled my luggage against a wall, my hat on top, and stood in the shadows by the door.
In the great square hall with its wooden floors and dust-covered table, the smell caught me by surprise, reminding me of school dinners, that sickening, tepid smell of boiled fish. I was shocked. There were two doors, one either side of the hall, both shut, but, wherever it was coming from, the smell of cooking was heavy in the air. Yet opposite me, French windows opened onto lawns, yellow in the sunlight, where surely the air would be fresh.
On the right was the long, dusty table with books on it and a brass bell, and there I saw a faded notice propped against the bell, which read Please ring.
I couldn’t bring myself to ring the bell immediately, the sound shocking the silence, so I stood for a while looking out of the windows at the lawns that sloped up and away from the house and at the trees surrounding the lawns: beech, oak and blue-black cypress.
Still no one came, so I knew I had to ring the bell, deciding that if this brought no one, I was definitely going home. Then suddenly, making me jump, a door on the right opened and this tiny figure appeared, shuffling towards me. He looked grubby and unkempt, his brown habit marked with food stains, and he wore slippers. He came up so close, his breath hot and sour in my face, all the time grinning at me. I felt him touching me. I didn’t like it and moved away. He smelled of fish and dirt and I thought he was revolting.
‘They’re all in chapel.’ he shouted. ‘But I’m in the kitchen.’ ‘I’m Rose Gregory. I’ve booked in for a few days.’
But he wasn’t listening, kept turning his head towards the door as if he was doing something wrong, as if he was expecting someone to come through the door.
‘Mustn’t let Francis come in here.’ And he exhaled a long hum, shaking his head, still grinning. ‘Not allowed.’ And he shook his head backwards and forwards with a, ‘No No No!’ He turned to me. ‘It’s fish today. Should have been Friday but the delivery didn’t come in time.’ He gave a kind of choke. ‘So, we’re having it today instead. Father is not pleased.’ Then he turned to go, calling back, ‘Have you come for lunch?’
My nervousness was beginning to turn to rage. ‘I’ve come to stay. I arranged it with Father Godfrey a week ago.’
Suddenly he seemed to understand but said nothing, just shuffled past me and through the French windows. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I picked up all my bits and pieces and followed him. He turned round to look at me but didn’t speak.
‘Am I supposed to be following you?’ I called, but he just shunted onwards, mumbling to himself.
I thought, God help me. I’ve come to a lunatic asylum. I want wisdom. Guidance. Healing. But I’ve come to a lunatic asylum. Ah well. We can all be mad together.
He turned around as he was hurrying. ‘It’s just you.’
‘Just me what?’ I had imagined visitors sitting in deckchairs in the garden, reading, talking to each other, walking together into meals, smiling with recognition. I could not believe I was going to be alone amongst these peculiar monks. All alone.
We crossed the lawn to the left and turned down a path, which wound through overgrown rhododendrons, heavy with blossoms, emerging to reveal a low prefabricated building surrounded by a cracked and weedy concrete path. The quivering monk opened one of the doors on the long side of the building, looked inside, and then shut it again. His head was continually nodding and he seemed rather agitated. ‘Not that one. We don’t get many these days.’
It was the third door that he finally opened and let me through. The sunlight caught the stubble on his face as he watched me like a curious child. His faded blue eyes watered.
‘How long are you staying?’ he asked, and he grinned before turning away, not waiting for my answer, mumbling something about a rabbit.
He was like one of the dwarfs in Snow White. I watched him, head poking forward like a chicken, arms hanging stiffly, as he half ran, half skipped down the path and out of sight. And I stayed there in the doorway and wanted to cry, but, ‘You mustn’t cry,’ Mother had said. ‘You must never cry.’
I didn’t want to go into my room and shut the door. Somehow. But I did, of course, because there was nothing else I could do. It was a small room with an iron bedstead, striped ticking mattress and a pile of bedding neatly folded at one end. It reminded me of boarding school. There was a threadbare rug by the bed and on the other side of the room a dark oak table with a Bible and a wooden crucifix on the wall above it. Opposite the bed stood a modern teak chest of drawers, and across the far corner a flowered chintz curtain, which I guessed was some makeshift wardrobe. My stuff had fallen and was spread over the floor, so I had to step over it to investigate. I was right. Behind the curtain was a rail with a few wooden hangers. There was no washbasin or loo, though. No ensuite! To be honest, it was about as bad as it could get. So where was the bathroom? I discovered it two doors down. Yellow walls, cork bath mat propped up against the side of the bath, and a canister of Vim with a blue J-cloth standing in the white basin. The only good thing about it all was as there were apparently no others staying, I would have the bathroom to myself. That was one thing at least.
I did manage to shove a few things away and make up the bed but, that done, I pulled the green velvet curtains, faded round the edges, across the windows to keep out the glaring sun and got under the blanket, pulled it over my head to shut out the light and tried to escape into sleep.
I hadn’t brought any photographs; just the snapshots in the back of my wallet. Photos were like crying. How hopeless to think crying could do anything. I liked the snapshots because the kids were smiling and happy. They had been happy, hadn’t they? But, with them gone, tears were trivial, almost an insult. It can’t be explained; only that there were four of us and now there’s just me. It’s really very simple. And the thing is, I don’t feel anything any more. No, it’s true. I absolutely don’t. Not proud of it, but there it is. If someone I knew, a friend say, came and told me that their kids had been killed in a plane disaster, I wouldn’t feel anything. I would be very sorry. Very sorry indeed, but I wouldn’t feel sorry. There is a difference. Am I psychopathic? I must be. No feelings, you see. So, I don’t cry and I didn’t bring any photos.
About the book
Rose Gregory has suffered a devastating blow, a double bereavement from which months later she is still reeling. Sanctuary and rest are prescribed by her doctor. But when she arrives at her refuge, a dank and decaying Monastery, she finds it is not the haven promised. Despite the veneer of calm contemplation, the Monastery turns out to be a hotbed of intrigue and disharmony. Rose witnesses bullying and cruelty and ultimately in defence of the vulnerable turns to violence herself. Sylvia Colley s extraordinary understanding of a woman s struggle to deal with grief, the denial, the anger, the loneliness, is described without sentimentality. A beautifully written and moving story.
About the author
Sylvia Colley was born in Romsey, Hampshire. She became a teacher and spent many years as Head of English at the Purcell School in North London. She has published a book of poetry, It’s Not What I Wanted Though, and a novel, Lights on Dark Water. Her work has been read on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Pinner, Middlesex.